Women, to Flashman, are either sweet imbeciles, or bless their black hearts deceitful strippers. Small wonder, then, that the Flashman books of George Macdonald Fraser are not generally thought to have many female fans.
Of the many messages on the BBC's website yesterday expressing sadness at the author's recent death, only 6 per cent came with female names appended. Nevertheless, he had quite an impact on some of us. Aged 13, I was sent to Rugby School. My parents thought I was desperate to use the new art and technology block. As if! In fact, I was desperate to meet Flashman. For a fictional fancy, he has had extraordinary longevity; his spurs are dug deep in our imagination. He is a character that authors can pass between them and run with.
Macdonald Fraser's Flashman became a cult in the 1970s (the first of the 12 books, about the siege of Kabul, was published in 1969) but he was the invention of Thomas Hughes, who introduces him in Tom Brown's Schooldays (1857).
Here, Tom Brown and Harry Flashman can be taken as depicting the twin opposites of the Victorian character. Brown is kind, tender, full of sentiment, if not actually sentimental; keen to do good and be honourable even if it costs him dearly. Flashman is macho, libidinous, exploitative, swaggering. One loves his dear Mama; the other seduces matron's daughter, the cad! More specifically, they represent the changing face of education.
Flashman stands for the bad old days of public school, where pupils pulled rank, bought better rooms, horse-whipped one another, gambled, smoked and learned chaotically in one enormous hall. Tom Brown, as the protg of the great reformer Doctor Arnold, stands for the new school experience: fairer play, regular chapel-going, standardised living quarters and, controversially, classrooms. Oh, and sporting events in which fewer pupils died. Doctor Arnold offered a new academic deal: "muscular Christianity".
Which sounded good enough to my 13-year-old self well, mainly the muscular part. I arrived at Rugby hoping very much to be tossed in a blanket. I soon learned some dreams are not to be. But I did find a school where the spirit of Flashman was still somehow intangibly present. It was the first year that Rugby had accepted girls aged 13, and it was a school in flux: some of the old was there alongside the new. Visiting a boys' house for a meal-swap, I was sitting eating my Sunday lunch when a large shoe landed in front of my plate. I looked up: the shoe had a leg, and the leg belonged to one of the largest of the sixth-formers, who was strutting down the table top, kicking a little towards our plates if he could be bothered. "It's what they always do," a fellow first-year whispered to me. But I was gazing upwards. Was it could it be Flashy?
They stopped that habit within the year. Things were changing; the Arnold project was, perhaps, still playing out. There was a minor rebellion when they made a girl joint head of school, and some books were thrown about a bit. But what really changed the school, I think, was the simple presence of girls.
We messed up their rituals of male dominance and we took all the female parts in Shakespeare. We joined their military corps and found out exactly how easy or difficult it was to load a rifle and wear camo-cream. Never again would they be able to impress us with fighting talk. And during the whole process they realised we were people, rather than sweet imbeciles or dark-hearted doxys.
Flashman could never have been the product of said with a sneer co-education. Did girls kill Flashman? In later life, George Macdonald Fraser moved to the Isle of Man, saying it bore a resemblance to England as it used to be. On the Isle of Man, perhaps, Rugby is ever all male. Fraser's obituaries have varied dramatically, some playing up the politically incorrect elements of his books, others downplaying them; some interpreting his books as a critique of British imperialism, others taking them as straightforwardly supportive.
Perhaps they are altogether more ambiguous than we realised. The books will continue to be read for their adventure, wit, and the extraordinary gallop they take through the historical panorama. The appallingly sexist attitudes Flashman strikes are true to the Victorian past why dilute them? and also rather funny. As I say so, I chortle like their anti-hero, and twirl my imaginary moustaches. Adventure isn't only for boys. It's too late to go back to the age of single-sex reading, or education, for that matter.Reuse content